Bike Trails Threatened: A Close One For Urban Cyclists

Federal investment in bike trails has steadily increased since 1991, but tea party leaders now threaten to rethink government involvement.

| July/August 2012

  • bike-path
    For years, funding for cycling infrastructure has been more or less below the mainstream radar. It is, after all, a tiny percentage of federal transportation spending, and bikers themselves are a growing, but still small, cohort.
    MICHAEL HICKS / FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/MULAD

  • bike-path

The bike lanes and pathways of Minneapolis are a local source of pride, and rightly so. The city’s beautiful Grand Rounds system connects countless neighborhoods together in a diverse 50-mile network of paths. Through the center of town, the below-ground Greenway gives cyclists and pedestrians a break from traffic, and runs continuously from nearby St. Paul to the suburbs. Especially during a busy rush hour, it seems much of the city is more accessible on two wheels than it could ever be on four. So when Bicycling Magazine named Minneapolis America’s #1 Bike City, locals displayed a lot of false modesty (this is still Minnesota), but little surprise. And while the magazine had a lot to say about innovations like the Grand Rounds, most of the accompanying article talked about the larger biking culture in Minneapolis: the bicycling couriers, the dozens of bike shops, the relentless winter commuting. In places like Minneapolis, cycling is not just a hobby or subculture—it’s a legitimate alternative for getting around, on par with public transit or driving.

But like other bike-friendly cities, Minneapolis owes a lot to federal investment in cycling infrastructure. And that investment looks perilously insecure.

Back in February, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to eliminate federal funding for bicycling projects and infrastructure. As PRI points out, last year, federal support amounted to $1.2 billion—less than 2 percent of all transportation spending—a relatively small number that nevertheless made a big impact. The money went toward projects like the Safe Routes to School program as well as Complete Streets initiatives aimed at maintaining safe spaces for bikes and pedestrians on roadways. In the House Committee version (HR 7), all of this would have been gutted, along with dozens of other transportation programs. Back in 2005, the last transpo bill Congress passed included the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” which has since become a Tea Party symbol of pork-barrel spending.

In a February op-ed in The Hill, New Hampshire Congressman Frank Guinta boasted that HR 7 would remove thousands of earmarks from the 2005 bill and strip funding down to its (bare) necessities.



Luckily for cyclists, that version didn’t last very long. After the Senate passed a much better transportation bill (MAP-21), the House approved a new draft that would let bicycle funding stand (SAFETEA-LU). If Congress can combine and pass the new bills by July 1 (when funding runs out), it will probably include support for bicycle projects. But whether or not this happens, the debate was the first of its kind in a generation. Until very recently, urban cycling has been a bipartisan effort—cheap by Washington standards, and basically uncontroversial. The close call served as a reminder of how important federal dollars are in maintaining and expanding cycling options for city dwellers—and how much Washington’s spending priorities have recently shifted. 

Biking Infrastructure Not a Government Priority

For the past 20 years, federal support for bicycling infrastructure has steadily gone up. As Urban Land points out (February 22, 2012), biking in any major U.S. city wasn’t so easy before 1991 when Congress earmarked federal dollars for cycling infrastructure for the first time. The bill allotted less than 2 percent of federal transportation funding to expand bicycle infrastructure, but that was enough to completely reshape the look and feel of many cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon (another recent #1 Bike City winner). And as The Nation reports (October 17, 2011), on the grassroots side, the Complete Street Movement has been advocating safer and more expansive bike routes for years. Governors in a number of states have approved their proposals, including Minnesota, and Complete Street language has found its way into federal legislation. In 2005 Minneapolis was also the recipient—along with Sheboygan County, Wisconsin; Marin County, California; and Columbia, Missouri—of a $25 million federal grant for a pilot program to further development biking and walking paths over 10 years.

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